The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gift that keeps on giving to both fans and to Disney, the company responsible for making them. Marvel’s track record has been the envy of the industry, with seemingly everything they touch turning into gold. What I find most pleasing about all this is the fact that Marvel is not just succeeding on the backs of their most notable characters, but they are amazingly diving deep into their extensive catalog and giving the lesser known characters in their library the spotlight. Who would’ve imagined a decade ago that characters like The Vision, or the Falcon, or even Rocket Raccoon would make it to the big screen and become popular in their own right. Not only that, but long gestating films for some of Marvel’s more popular characters who had yet been given their own movies are now finally coming to us with great regularity; such as last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) and next year’s Black Panther (2018). It seems like no subject or character in the MCU is unworthy of a cinematic treatment, because their brand is so strong right now that every ship they have is rising with this enormous tide. That’s not to say that everything in the MCU has been flawless. A few missteps have happened along the way, like Edgar Wright’s controversial departure from Ant-Man (2015), the disappointing plot twist of Iron Man 3 (2013), and from what I hear the entire first season of the Iron Fist Netflix series (I can’t judge yet, because I have yet to watch it). But, for the most part, Marvel’s formula has worked amazingly well, and has managed to successfully launch new franchises into cinemas from some unlikely places. And that is true no more so than in one of their crowning achievements to date; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
When it was first announced that Marvel was turning their Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series into a film, it left quite a few people surprised. Sure, Guardians had a fan-base, but it was a minor title in the Marvel catalog compared to say the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America. Not only that, but the one tasked with adapting the comic was a young writer/director named James Gunn, who had only directed two films before, and neither of which were huge in scale on the level that we’d expect from Marvel. And yet, Marvel seemed pretty confident with their project, and when it premiered in the late summer of 2014, we finally saw why. Guardians of the Galaxy was a transcendent hit, proving that even a more obscure title like itself could click with audiences when given an inspired and confident treatment. James Gunn showed remarkable talent as a storyteller, making the movie feel both unique and fresh, even when given the requirements to stay close to the source material. Even more impressive is the fact that Guardians is regarded by many to be Marvel’s best film to date, even exceeding the reputation of their beloved Avengers franchise. That’s quite an achievement for a comic title that few people had even known about beforehand. Now, people who had never read the comic are familiar with the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and of course, Groot. It’s the broad appeal cross-over hit that Marvel was always hoping for, and one that would open the flood gates for so much more. Which put’s enormous pressure on following that up with an inevitable sequel. Luckily, James Gunn and crew are back with their ambitious follow-up; the appropriately named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Picking up directly after the events of the first film, we find the Guardians working as mercenaries for hire. After defending a high value target from a monstrous creature’s attack, the Guardians are rewarded by a genetically engineered super race called the Sovereign. Unfortunately, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) deceptively stole some of the Sovereign’s sacred treasure, which causes the Sovereign’s leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to launch a warship attack on the Guardians. The Guardians manage to miraculously escape once the Sovereign’s ships are destroyed by a mysterious being who calls them to a nearby planet. There, he introduces himself as Ego (Kurt Russell) and reveals that he is in fact the father of Guardian member Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord. Ego asks for Peter to accompany him to his home planet, which he reluctantly does along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) by his side. They leave Rocket behind to fix their broken ship, along with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s disgruntled sister, and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who’s slowly regenerating after sacrificing his adult form in the last film. When they reach Ego’s planet, they soon learn that Ego is not only the man they see before them, but the planet itself, having been made from the same particles. While on this living planet, Star-Lord learns more about his past, but Gamora and Drax begin to grow suspicious, especially when Ego’s only companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins to worry for them. Meanwhile, the Sovereign calls upon Star-Lord’s former employer Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt him down, which becomes more problematic when his own crew rises up in mutiny against him, because he still holds a soft spot for the kid he once raised up. With alliances coming into conflict, and Peter Quill becoming more aware of his destiny, everything begins to culminate into one cosmic adventure.
The first Guardians was not only a high water mark set by Marvel, but it could also be argued that it’s one of the best films of the last decade. I for one put it at #2 on my list of the top films of 2014; only bested that year by Birdman, and believe me it was a tough choice between the two. Which makes the bar extremely high for a sequel to clear, let alone match. I tried to tamper my expectations somewhat, and would have accepted anything from this same team, just as long as it was entertaining. Thankfully, it was more than just that. I’m pleased to say that Vol. 2 is remarkably just as good as the first film, and even manages to improve upon it in many ways. Everything that made the first movie great can be found here intact; the hilarious banter between characters, the often jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals, the often explosive action sequences, the subtle but always exciting Easter eggs to other Marvel entities, and of course the killer retro soundtrack. Thus far, Marvel has done a fairly good job of making their sequels work as perfect continuations of what’s been done before, allowing the extra time spent with these characters work as a way of exploring new territory. What is interesting here is that Vol. 2 does expand on this universe in some ways, but also reigns a lot of stuff back in. Unlike the first Guardians, which devoted a lot of time towards establishing larger Marvel Universe elements like Thanos and the Infinity Stones, this Guardians actually leaves a lot of that out, staying more focused on the characters and their continuing stories. This is a far more standalone story for the Guardians characters, and that’s somewhat refreshing from Marvel, given their whole leadup these last few years towards the inevitable Infinity War. For the most part, this helps Vol. 2 feel freer than it’s predecessor, acting more as it’s own thing than part of a larger whole.
It’s hard for me to find any flaws to speak about in this film, since it gets so much right that any flaws feel really insignificant when looked at together with everything else. If I were to maybe single anything out, it’s that some story-lines outshine others, and that’s largely due to some of those other plot-lines just feeling generic compared to the more creative ones. For instance, the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego, while still entertaining for the most part, feels a tad too familiar, because it’s a plot thread that we’ve seen perhaps too many times in other movies. To the movie’s credit, it still plays around with this plot element in a way that does make it feel unique, including probably the funniest spin I’ve seen on a game of catch in any movie. The extended final climactic showdown also kinda feels a little bloated, but again, it is flavored with enough creative bits that you’ll end up not feeling bored at any time. And that’s the biggest strength from this film, is it’s incredible sense of balance. Any time you start to think that the movie is going to lose it’s footing, it manages to surprise you with an unexpected treat. That’s a great testament to James Gunn’s abilities as a writer and director. There is so much creativity thrown into every scene of this movie, with physical and verbal gags hitting their mark frequently. One sticking point with some viewers is that some of the jokes and visual references might fly by too quickly, especially for those unfamiliar with the comics and their lore. I’m sure that quite a few people are going to wonder why Sylvester Stallone is in this movie, and who he’s playing (classic Guardian character Stakar Ogord) for those who are wondering. But, few, if any of these more confusing and weaker elements ever ruin the enjoyment of watching this film, which remains a consistent delight.
Of course, the strongest element of the film is the thing that also made the first movie great, and that’s the flawless cast that’s been assembled. The returning cast is just as solid as ever, and are given even more time to flesh out their characters more fully. I’m still amazed at how these movies manage to evenly divide time between all of their disparate characters, and never once make it feel like any of them got short-ended. In fact, many of the supporting characters are even given an upgrade; in particular, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who honestly is the film’s standout. Yondu was a great character in the first movie, but here he plays a far more integral role that really endears him to the audience and brings him to his full potential. Rooker’s performance is so good here, and it could even be the best work of his already stellar career. He also delivers probably one of the funniest line deliveries I have ever heard (one regarding a famous British nanny), and it left me in stitches after hearing it. The other returning cast are also exceptional, including Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana taking their career boosting roles to the next level. The vocal work of Bradley Cooper as Rocket is also still top notch, and it still amazes me that Vin Diesel is able to get so much emotion out of a character who only speaks in three words. Baby Groot, by the way, is as adorable as you’d expect, and even gets to feature in the opening credits dancing to an ELO song. Of the new characters, Kurt Russell really shines as Ego, which is not an easy character to adapt to the screen. How do you play a living planet? Well, Russell found a way and it’s just by playing a version of himself; charming and quirky, but hiding many secrets underneath. Pom Klementieff is also wonderfully sweet and innocent as Mantis, someone who disarms with her inner beauty, while repulsing with her outward appearance; something which Drax hilariously keeps discussing throughout the movie. Guardians is defined by it’s great characters, and this sequel proves that more equals more with regards to it’s story.
One other thing that I love about this franchise is the incredible visuals that are on display. James Gunn has shown that he’s just as adept at creating a visual feast as he is at writing a clever humorous bit. The first Guardians wowed with it’s impressive space ship battles and this sequel gives us that as well. But, it also delivers some really impressive elements that we have yet to see before. The visuals of Ego’s planet, for example, are stunning; filling every space with Technicolor splendor. DC and Warner Bros. should take note; not everything needs to be washed out and drab to make an action scene feel exciting. Guardians of the Galaxy uses color and light as an essential tool of it’s world building, and it’s something that really sets it apart from the rest of the field. There is one sequence in particular, with Yondu taking out his mutinous crew with his whistle controlled arrow, that is one of the most beautiful action scenes that I’ve watched in a while. As the floating arrow moves through the ship, it leaves a neon trail of light behind it, creating a striking ribbon of destruction in it’s wake. It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire movie, and one that I’m happy that the filmmakers devoted a good amount of time to. The film also uses it’s CGI very responsibly, supporting the storytelling instead of just showing off. With a film that’s no where near earthbound, it’s pretty much a necessity to use visual effects to make it come alive, but in lesser hands, this movie could have become more style than substance. Thankfully, visual effects are abundant, but restrained here; only aiming for extravagance when needed. And there’s some impressive effects work here too, like Ego’s manipulation of the planet late in the film, a hilarious over-the-top and surreal portal traveling sequence, and the fore-mentioned arrow scene. Also, the animation used to create Rocket and Groot is still impressive, getting great expressiveness out of the two. Like it’s predecessor, Vol. 2 is unparalleled in it’s visual splendor.
In total, there is little reason for you to not go out immediately and watch this movie. If you loved the first Guardians, you are going to love Vol. 2 as well. It’s amazing to think that this once obscure collection of comics is now the Crown Jewel of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Not only that, but it managed to maintain that same level of quality over two separate movies; hopefully with a third one on the way in the post Infinity War phase of the MCU. I expected a sequel from this same team to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be as great as this one. It will take me time to consider which Guardians I like more, because they honestly are really on par with each other. I think the original has the benefit of novelty, but Vol. 2 does take smaller elements from the first film and expands on them in spectacular ways. For one thing, it’s great to see characters like Yondu get more development this time around, as well as exploring new territory with some of the more central characters too. Both die hard comic fans and casual viewers are going to cherish this film as well. I know people who have never read a Guardians comic book who now consider the original their favorite superhero movie, which just shows you the transcendent appeal that Marvel has tapped into with these movies. Just like our actual universe itself, the MCU is inexplicably speeding up in it’s expansion when it should be slowing down, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a prime example of it’s forward momentum. It’s stellar cast, incomparable vision, and complete confidence in it’s own identity has made it the envy of the entire superhero genre and a franchise that stands strong on it’s own. There’s little doubt that this will stand as one of the best sequels ever, and for right now, it is this summer’s must see hit. I doubt very few of you need any coaxing from me to go see this movie, but I can tell you that personally it has been incredibly rewarding going ’round the galaxy once again with these Guardians.